The Albert B. Sabin Digitization Project: The Faces Behind Polio Eradication

Together, these four men represent the public face of polio – the courageous victim, the devoted foundation leader, the brilliant researchers with their lifesaving vaccines.
-Historian David M. Oshinsky,
in reference to President Franklin Roosevelt, Basil O’Connor, and Drs. Sabin and Salk

Prior to starting on the grant to digitize the Albert B. Sabin archives, I wasn’t quite sure what polio was or how much of an impact the Sabin vaccine had. After spending the last couple of months reading Dr. Sabin’s correspondence, I started to learn some of the names of scientists who had a hand in helping to eradicate polio throughout the world.

Several great scientific minds were honored at the Polio Hall of Fame for their contributions to the fight against the disease.

While going through some boxes to locate photographs to scan for this project, I came across several copies of the photo seen here, which was addressed to Dr. Sabin from Basil O’Connor, who was the one of the founders of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The photograph is from the dedication of the Polio Hall of Fame in January 1958 at what is now called the Institute for Rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Georgia, and the busts on the wall represent the most influential polio researchers at the time.

Even though not all of the men and women whose busts were on the wall were at the ceremony, it is interesting to me to see the faces of those who were there. Along with Dr. Sabin, names such as Thomas Rivers, John R. Paul, Thomas Francis, Joseph Melnick, Howard A. Howe, David Bodian, and Jonas Salk are all familiar to me because of Dr. Sabin’s correspondence. Dr. Sabin exchanged letters and sometimes engaged in heated discussions with these men. It is amazing to see so much scientific brain power in one place!

Although, as the Oshinsky quote references above, President Roosevelt, Basil O’Connor, Drs. Sabin and Salk were the “public face[s] of polio,” it was great to see those faces that weren’t so public and finally put faces with those names I have been reading since July.

Finally, I just wanted to call your attention to the inscription at the bottom of the photograph. The photo says:

To Dr. Albert B. Sabin
With congratulations and sincere appreciation from Basil O’Connor

As Oshinsky and other scholars have noted, O’Connor and Sabin didn’t get along, especially since O’Connor had backed the Salk vaccine. Sabin promoted the use of his own oral polio vaccine, which in turn, discredited Salk’s work. O’Connor and Sabin had a more contentious relationship than this inscription lets on.

For more information, see David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in history and is a great read.

For more information about the Sabin digitization project, check out the original press release.

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati Libraries received a $314,258 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the correspondence and photographs of Dr. Albert B. Sabin. This digitization project has been designated a NEH “We the People” project, an initiative to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation’s history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.